Kids or Not, It Can Pay to Do Some Back to School Shopping for Yourself

Back to school shopping doesn’t have to be just for parents or kids.

For the last few years, I’ve covered back to school shopping for, and while I was neither in school nor sending a child off to one, I can almost recite by heart the list of items that get discounted around this time each year. Unfortunately for both me and my wife, some technical difficulties pressed each of us into doing some back to school shopping of our own this year.

I have had my little 13-inch white MacBook for almost a decade. It fills all my writing needs, it remains largely bug-free and, until this year, it required only a new battery every now and then. However, Apple has considered it obsolete for a while now and, this year, it began running incredibly hot and, in its final days, wasn’t responding to mouse commands.

Despite living in a tech-driven corner of Oregon, only one computer shop would take my hobbled laptop. As it turned out, the battery had swelled beyond the laptop’s casing and had bent the clickpad out of place. It came home fixed, but with a warning that even third-party companies weren’t producing batteries for it anymore.

My wife, meanwhile, had dumped her old Dell laptop into a magazine rack beside our couch and left it there do die. She’d purchased it 11 years ago for a graduate program and had it repaired multiple times by technicians at her father’s workplace. When it, too, lost battery integrity and became more buggy than she could deal with, she made do with a free tablet from our wireless provider until she could shop for another.

That’s when I remembered, after years of consulting sites like DealNews and LifeHacker, that late-summer back-to-school sales are second only to Black Friday for laptop deals. I checked Best Buy during its “Black Friday in July” sale and found a MacBook Air that sells for $999 on Apple’s site listed for $849. It wasn’t refurbished and, while it wasn’t the $699 version I could’ve received if I was a student, it was still a fine deal.

Laura, meanwhile, paid just $200 on Amazon for an updated version of the Dell Inspiron that cost her more than twice as much a decade earlier. As DealNews notes, however, last year saw Dell prices drop 11 percent between July and August, while Lenovo 11.6-inch laptops (far smaller than her 15.6-inch model) sold for about $130.

While Apple, Best Buy, and other tech retailers will restrict their best deals to card-carrying college kids or their parents, there are still deals out there for those who won’t be attending classes in the fall. According to DealNews, 31 percent of the tablet deals offered in August 2017 were among the best deals of that year.

Besides, not every sale needs a student ID card. Notebooks, pens, pencils, markers, disinfectant wipes, and more wind up on sale at Walmart and Target, often for less than a buck apiece. Staples used to not only revel in parents’ back-to-school shopping, but still slashes the prices of notebooks, pens, folders, rulers, index cards, Post-It Notes, and other items around this time each year. If you’re an adult who uses pens and paper in any capacity and you aren’t using this time of year as an excuse to go to Office Depot and stock up on stationery and other office supplies, you’re missing a pretty great opportunity for frugality.

The National Retail Federation estimates that parents will spend $82.8 billion this year amid increased consumer confidence. However, those shopping for college and beyond spend $55 billion of that total, and roughly $941 apiece. That includes more than $229 on electronics — but clothes, shoes, furniture, and home goods all go on sale as a result of college kids’ whims as well.

Summer apparel always sees a price drop around this time of year at places like the Gap, Kohl’s, JCPenney, and Old Navy, but shoes also get a back-to-school boost as Clarks, Famous Footwear, DSW, Puma, Adidas, and Tilly’s all offer deep discounts. According to DealNews, Puma and Adidas brands drop as low as $25 for adult sneakers around this time of year, while online outlets like Sperry, Shoebacca, and Foot Locker will offer discounts of 33 to 75 percent.

However, you can’t discount just how much of an effect back-to-school sales have on “filler items” like stacks of hand sanitizer, toilet paper, paper towels, and other items you see as you head toward the registers or that pop up as suggestions to get you to free shipping. This year, Target offers $15 off $50 worth of household supplies, while Walmart pushes bedding and small kitchen appliances with college kids in mind. Bed Bath & Beyond, meanwhile, built itself on offering storage containers, shelving, hangers, laundry kits, and shower items at a deep discount around this time of year.

Those big piles of sale-priced storage containers at Home Depot or Lowe’s? Those giants skids of pencils and tape at Costco? None of them require a child or a teacher’s list to pick up for yourself.

You just have to think somewhat like a college student or school parent. How much of each of these items will it take to get me through the year? How many of these do I actually go through, and is it worth getting this many to get the bulk discount? Is any of this apparel multi-seasonal? How long will it be before I actually need to buy shoes again?

Shopping for laptops during back to school season this year was just a sound reminder of the frugality behind shopping these sales when you have kids in school. You want to get as many of the best items you can at the lowest cost possible, and you want to make sure what you buy will be durable enough to get you through at least the school year.

If you can stock up on a year’s worth of clothing, office supplies, cleaning supplies, and other home goods for dorm-room prices, all while picking up a laptop that will survive a collegiate career, you’re learning one of the best lessons the start of the school year can teach.

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Jason Notte

Contributor for The Simple Dollar

A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte’s work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications.